By Armelle Leturcq

Rediscover our interview with Donatien Grau from our issue #86.

Shifting perspectives by confronting contemporary painting with masterpieces of the 19th century: that is what Donatien Grau attempts to accomplish at the Musée d’Orsay. Named head of contemporary programs earlier this year, he is now opening his first exhibition with Orsay Through the Eyes of Julian Schnabel: a reinterpretation of certain works from the museum’s permanent collection. In it, the American painter invites us to end the practice of classifying artworks by period… During this joint interview between Donatien Grau, art advisor Patricia Marshall and Armelle Leturcq, we discuss the concepts of boundaries, dialogue between artworks and gender in art…

Armelle: The major issues and questions that come up in art today deal with categories and breaking out of categories: avant-garde and antiquity, sculpture and painting. It’s a big contemporary question. At the risk of sounding a bit cliché, the drive to transcend categories is essential today, both in terms of race and gender.  

I don’t think everyone wants to break through categories, quite the opposite in fact – and it depends on what we mean by “categories”. But major artists simultaneously explore and explode these categories. It’s a great question. A major artist like Zoe Leonard does not break down codes, instead she explores them: in photography, analogue and, at the same time, she completely reinvents them.

Armelle: Yes, I’ve followed her work for twenty years. She was at Philippe Rizzo a long time ago, when he still had his gallery.

She is working on an absolutely magnificent project in Texas, on the border with Mexico, where she is photographing landscapes. She is reinventing the genre, and at the same time, it’s extremely political. She even moved there.

Armelle: That’s interesting. Zoe pioneered a lot of these questions in terms of genre. She had disappeared for a while.

She was central to the women’s empowerment movement, and today, while these questions still appear in her work, she redefined them. That’s what makes her so important today: her relationship to the form and to politics, both taken to the highest level, is essential.

Armelle: We wanted to talk about your way of bringing contemporary art into the Musée d’Orsay and breaking down notions of period and style. I think it’s quite a new phenomenon, like the dialogue between Egon Schiele and Basquiat at the Louis Vuitton Foundation.  

I don’t think so.

Patricia: Nevertheless, you shook up the established order because Orsay was devoted exclusively to 19th century art, stopping just before the First World War.

That decision came from the President of the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie. In the 2000s, Serge Lemoine, then President of the Musée d’Orsay, presented dialogues between artworks: it was called “Correspondances”. For example, he placed a Soulages next to a Le Gray photo. That perspective radicalized the collection’s artworks, and it made sense for the time. The stakes have changed today. At a museum like Orsay, we have to fulfil our public service mission before catering to artists: in a way, the artists have to act as our first public, and enable mediation with the broader public. We have to try to produce interpretations that trigger a shift: so that both occur, an interpretation, meaning an availability, and a shift. Orsay, a museum ranging from 1848 to 1914, maintains a sufficient distance from us in terms of the period of the artworks in its collections, unlike modern art museums like MoMA or Centre Pompidou, whose purpose is to uphold a continuity between Gauguin and Bruce Nauman or cubism and Franz West, while Orsay focuses on a radical break. There is the historical break, produced by the museum’s structural construction: this moment of the 19th century is distant in many ways, but it contains the seeds of many things in our world. Now we find ourselves in a position of intellectual credibility where we no longer need to emphasize linear continuity, but as in the case of Zoe Leonard and Cézanne for example, we can say there is a bridge. That way we recognize the relationship, as well as the distance and contrast. Once we have established our terrain, and we know that we are dealing with the period from 1848 to 1913, any imaginable reinterpretation becomes possible. As we are doing this evening, we may invite Elizabeth Streb and Stéphane Ricordel to perform in the nave in dialogue with the circus arts and their creative universe, which feature prominently throughout the museum and in the current exhibition, “Picasso. Blue and Rose”. We can also invite a writer to give a reading at the museum. We can try to amplify the messages and positions concerning the museum that are presented to the public. But we cannot do that without an awareness of the major issues of our times, as well as life in the city. Take the example of feminism. Recent history includes two currents: the current inherited from Simone de Beauvoir and Hélène Cixous, which says that sex is not a constraint but a field of liberation, a field of possibility. We are born woman or man, but birth must be seen as a sort of poetics. The laugh of the Medusa. This is opposed to the more directly political current of feminism, which wants to invent a new category, in which the category of gender takes precedence over sex. I’m not saying anything original, but gender is politics against biology.

Armelle: The question being, “Are we born woman or man, or do we become it?”

Patricia: When a girl is born, we say, “It’s a girl”. In the United States, you have to have a third gender bathroom now.

Do we become it based on what we received at birth, or do we become it based on what we want to become? Nowadays, in California, we are seeing all sorts of exciting experiments with sexuality. Young women are choosing to remove their breasts and take hormones to become hybrid beings, neither men nor women, just themselves.

Patricia: Those are transsexuals.

No, because they deny the transsexual category, which is a communitarian and political category. These people no longer ask this question. They are who they are with no label.

Armelle: So there is no more category. You invent your sexuality.

Catherine: I don’t understand. These women cut off their breasts, so they have something strong to say. They are still claiming a non-femininity. There is nothing more feminine than breasts.

Yes, but they occupy a space that is no longer the outright denial of a feminine body. Southern California has a very active lesbian culture that is distinguished by its refusal of heterosexuality. What’s interesting here is the creation of individualities. These people no longer pose the question of their gender and can have sexual relationships with boys or girls. Because changing sex has its dangers. We know about a woman who completed the whole transformation process to become a man, with testosterone shots, etc. But her body – feminine – wasn’t ready to receive the testosterone shots in such high doses. At one point, he started to waste away. Ultimately he had to reduce the doses. “He” reverted back to “her”. What is the body then, in light of “becoming fluid” and the impossibility of “becoming fluid”?

Patricia: And in relationship to art?

These are artistic questions. We are worlds away from the museum setting, and yet… Knowing about these existences, though they are extreme, is necessary. An artist like Paul McCarthy knows all about becoming male and becoming female. Of what is male that remains male and what is female that remains female, as Pierre Guyotat would say. His recent work, Stage Coach, manifests this field in which the sexes and cultural gender stereotypes coexist, both through fluidification and crystallization. In Stage Coach, there is the virile male, who is young, muscular, with hair everywhere. And there is the effeminate male. There is the seductive woman. There is the older seductive woman. All these categories enter into play. This is why Paul McCarthy is so important for young artists. He opened the field and has explored it since the 1970s. Very few artists explore the field of the sexes to this extent. He’s a bearded man, but he’s also someone who has a special relationship to the awareness of fluidity and the humiliation of the masculine by the feminine. These questions touch on the plasticity of becoming human. That’s what philosopher Catherine Malabou thought. What is a body that becomes plastic? What is a body that we can slice, cut, reinvent, transform? The taboo of recent years: you shall not touch your body. Others may violate your body, you can neglect it, but you cannot act on it, you cannot transform it. You can only transform it by marginal and progressive means. Southern California is a great example. It reminds me of the artists of the heroic generation of performance in the 1960s, like Barbara T. Smith, who did the marvelous piece called Feed me. It was scandalous. She was naked and men came one after another to feed her. But feed her how? With actual food, or sex? The story the men later told was that she had sex with all the men who came to see her. Like a giant orgy. It was a complete lie. It was an even more subversive than Marina Abramovic, who also focused on the control of relations between the sexes. Now she is at least eighty years old and her influence on young artists in California is enormous. Even more so than in the past. Some of the artists of the great feminist conquest are still with us today (Valie Export, Barbara T. Smith and ORLAN are some examples), but the whole generation after and the younger generation coming up live in a much more fluid world that is now being reinvented.

Patricia: And then there is artificial intelligence.

Precisely. From every side, if we choose to see it, there is a certainty that subjectivity is changing. The modern subject of the past fifty-five years is being reexamined due to political, environmental and other constraints. Subjectivity is both a space of experimentation and a space of consciousness and constraint. There is also a parallel with institutions. They are biological and evolve over time. Museums can die, too.

Armelle: Are institutions capable of devouring the avant-garde today?

But what is the avant-garde?

Armelle: It’s true that when you walk through any art fair, you get a feeling of déjà vu.

Catherine: There is style and substance. It’s true that in terms of style, everything has already been done, but it’s the meaning that changes. Neon is always neon. You can’t always look at everything with a systematic awareness of what came before.

Armelle: Perhaps, but style is also important. Where is the boundary between originality and what has already been done? Isn’t there a kind of new postmodernism today? Virgile Abloh uses that label. He sees his art as ready-made.

Patricia: Artists must have their own style, too, even if they have influences. Picasso immersed himself in many other people’s art, but his work is unique.

Armelle: I think an artist still has to be an inventor.

Patricia: For me, an artist simply feels the spirit of the times. Artists help you feel what is going on: anxieties, contemporary problems…

Working with Julian Schnabel at Orsay was exciting, because he is always aware of the conversations between present and past. The massive panels by La Goulue and Toulouse-Lautrec at the Musée d’Orsay are advertising, pop. Two hundred fifty years before Warhol, there was The Shop Sign of Gersaint by Watteau. Art reinvents itself within its own continuity. It is obvious that Schnabel devours everything: Lautrec, Degas, Velasquez, Greco, Goya… But he brings them somewhere else. Orsay is thirty-two but the figure of the artist is one hundred sixty. The birth of the figure of the rebel artist has a date: 1855, with the realist manifesto by Courbet. But our perspective creates genealogies: think of Caravaggio. The moderns said Caravaggio was a rebel because he painted prostitutes. When we look at canvases by Caravaggio, it’s both radically modern (lighting, etc.), and at the same time it’s how the Church wanted reality to be painted. It needed to get closer to the people and impose greater prestige. Caravaggio may be seen as a homosexual, killer, murderer, and timeless rebel, but he is also the child of his time. In our era, we have the privilege of writing a more complex, more fluid history. I’m going to take a less well-known example from the Orsay collections: the portrait sculpted in white marble by Sarah Bernhardt of her lover Louise Abbéma. From the outside, if we’re writing an LGBT history of art, it’s like Angelina Jolie making a virtual reality artwork with her transgender lover. We may think that it must have been absolutely scandalous. But it wasn’t scandalous at the time, it was exhibited at an art fair. This act that may be scandalous today: it was accepted at the time. It comes from the same moment as the first great Monets and the last great Manets. The possibility we have today, both in terms of institutions and in writing the history of the world’s artists, is to look at the past in a more fluid light so we can get closer to what was actually going on. Julian, in his exhibition, brings back Carolus-Duran, a painter friend of Manet, an ultra-talented painter of society, considered to be academic and not very interesting. At Orsay, his work is shown not far from Manet, while they were friends and esteemed one another. Let’s imagine an art history that is not as linear as we might think.

Armelle: Why did Laurence des Cars want to bring contemporary art into Orsay?

I can’t speak for her. But I can share a few of the fundamental principles of our approach. One of our founders, Michel Laclotte, who headed the Orsay design team, said: “the Musée d’Orsay should be polyphonic”: it should speak with many voices at once and recognize all those voices. Our mission is to restore the museum’s voices, and that happens through the artists. Julian Schnabel is a strong voice, as is Bob Wilson who did a video for us, or the writer in residence coming to the museum next year. The second principle comes from Cézanne: “The Louvre is the book in which we learn to read”. Our goal is not just contemporary art. Julian Schnabel is our guest, but we have also developed parallel projects with writers and musicians. And our invitation to Julian is not a dialogue: it’s a reading. Works, texts, staging, which he invented. It’s a genuine experience with thirty-foot walls. One thing that struck me, when I saw the completed exhibition, was to see that Van Gogh’s self-portrait – a cornerstone of the collection that was previously shown in a small room, hung fairly high up and alone on a wall – was hanging lower. He looks at each one of us squarely in the eyes, and no longer from a position of authority over us. The painting is no longer so intimidating. Normally, the public can’t get close to the painting, since it’s still six feet away. Julian Schnabel streamlines our access to art.

Armelle: It’s important to diffract our perspective on art…

What we are doing relates closely to our collection. It’s not a Julian Schnabel exhibition. It’s Orsay through the eyes of Julian Schnabel, in two rooms of the collection which he completely reinvented. It makes us think about the way we hang our works, too.

Armelle: The notion of classifying collections by era: a museum devoted to the 19th century, another to the 20th century, it can seem archaic.

A museum that doesn’t realize it is contemporary, regardless of the period it “covers”, has no awareness of the public and, therefore, of its mission. It exists at a given time for a given public who come to see it. The collection changes the public, and the public changes the collection. We have 3.6 million visitors a year, 4.4 million if we include the Orangerie. We have a duty towards this public who come from all over the world. And this open vision is nothing new. People often recall how Americans collected a lot of great French art from the 19th and early 20th centuries. But the French bought some of the best American works of the late 19th century: masterpieces like the best Alexander Harrison, the best Whistler, the best Winslow Homer… The contemporary consciousness sheds new light on these collections. Why do public museums have a special role to play given the rise of private institutions and foundations, or even the often incredible quality of exhibitions in commercial settings? We serve the public. That is no small thing. Our goal is not only to show artworks, but above all to transmit them.

Armelle: And these artworks belong to the government, meaning to everyone…

Patricia: Why did you choose Schnabel?

Laurence des Cars chose him. But the process was not about a “selection”. Julian was at the museum every day while making his film “At Eternity’s Gate”, about Vincent Van Gogh. It would have been stupid of us not to take advantage of that fact. Artists who develop projects with us come to spend time here. Our policy isn’t to go see this or that artist we like and offer them a project, but instead to welcome every artist who wants to come spend some time at the museum. The fluid nature of our world demands a certain amount of focus. There are thousands of artists, not to mention choreographers, musicians, photographers, designers and writers. What does it mean to make a perfect choice? It turned out that Julian had a strong response to the paintings in the collection and he also embodied the museum’s polyphonic nature. When an artist of his stature and vision is there, in the museum, looking at the paintings, it just seems obvious.

Patricia: During the opening, I felt like I was in New York. There were international guests, young people, people from all backgrounds. It was a breath of fresh air.

Our era is in need and looking for historical places with a solid grounding, as well as very open spaces. It’s a wonderful goal…

Armelle: The contemporary art world is becoming much more open to 19th century art. Before it never wanted anything to do with the Louvre or Orsay.

Patricia: It’s a fundamental mistake. We learn from the past.

Armelle: Thirty years ago, the captains of industry had no interest in contemporary art. They only bought the Impressionists. Today, even the bourgeoisie buys contemporary art…

We launched a program of videos in which leading figures in contemporary creation speak about Orsay’s collections: Bob Wilson, Philippe Parreno, Jonah Bokaer, Ariana Reines, Maylis de Kerangal, Dominique Issermann… Philippe Parreno is fascinated with Jean Carriès, a late 19th century sculptor. Parreno imagined a whole alternative history in which there was never a Musée Rodin or a Musée Carriès, and all the Rodins were stored away in basements.

Armelle: A lot of people say that Jeff Koons is the biggest star today, but in a century he will have been forgotten.

Donatien: Jeff Koons is an artist who developed a method.

Armelle: It’s interesting to see how history processes artists.

In the famous Wallace collection, what is the most expensive painting bought by Henry Wallace? Titian, Franz Hals, Rubens? No, it’s a work by Edward Landseer, the greatest Victorian painter. Is Carolus-Duran the most inventive artist of the 19th century? I don’t know. Is he an artist who embodied his era? Absolutely. In the established history, Manet became an inventor of modernism and Carolus-Duran is just a talented painter of 19th century society. All these notions are always open to reinterpretation. That’s what we’re trying to do with our reflections about the museum. Trying to be aware of what’s going on in Southern California, while still staying fully anchored in the identity of the museum. We can’t do one without the other.

Interview by Armelle Leturcq & Patricia Marshall.
Photos by Boris Camaca.

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